For someone who is just getting familiar with project management, “workflow” might seem like another corporate buzzword. But in fact, it is a great way to get your productivity in order. Workflows enable business owners to measure and predict results, improve responsibilities and, eventually, increase profits. Let’s see how it works.
Definition of Workflow
Let’s define a workflow by decomposing it. Work is a bunch of tasks and flow means an order they are done. Therefore, a workflow is a structured sequence of steps that describes a path to the desired result. Work literally flows from one stage or participant to another until the goal is reached.
The most convenient way to understand this concept is to visualize it via Casual app.
As you can see, workflows consist of several elements:
- Activities or tasks are single steps in the process. Each activity has the desired result - a condition to move to the next stage.
- Connections: the logical order tasks are done, the direction of movement.
- Actors, people responsible for each step.
In business, workflows often describe processes needed to achieve repeatable goals. A well-designed roadmap will ensure the same result every time. Moreover, documenting processes enables us to create a realistic timeline, see important milestones, spot bottlenecks, and dependencies.
Workflows occur surprisingly often in our everyday life as well as in all types of business, even if not documented. Some of them are extremely complex with parallel processes and multiple conditions, others are as simple as writing an email. Some require multiple people to play their parts, others you can do on your own.
Say, publishing a personal blog post can be a simple workflow that can be done by a single person: Write a post -> Add media -> Proofread -> Publish -> Share to social media.
Other examples of workflows are processes like hiring new employees, onboarding new clients, issuing invoices, even such a complex operation as assembling a car.
A workflow is a great way to explain any how-to: whether you want to start selling on eBay or become a project manager. If executed right, these steps will bring you to the goal.
Say, you want to launch a Kickstarter campaign. You start with defining your goal and planning the project, prepare texts, visuals, and video for the page, test it, promote and start raising funds. What you see here is a template. To be an actual workflow it needs specific timeframes and people assigned to complete each task.
Another example, planning SEO campaign. This is a task many Internet businesses need to perform on a regular basis. You can see that before optimising the on-page meta tags, you need to create a semantic core. And setting up a site is to be done after interlinking your pages and creating a sitemap. This flow contains a lot of parallel processes.
When a task is predictable and repetitive, it goes with a process workflow. Their path is known and precise, the need to deal with these questions arise all the time (or at least not once).
Processing an invoice is a good example. Once you receive it, the sequence of activities done by certain people is usually the same. And if you get several invoices at once, you can proceed with multiple items in a butch
Most explainers around the Internet only refer to process workflows, as they are the most frequent and the easiest to automate.
Case Workflow Project Workflow
This type is less predictable, though equally common. Once you get input data, the workflow starts, but it is unclear when it ends. The sequence reveals itself along the path, with more data gathered. The rules can lead to various choices that determine the outcome. Unlike process workflows, these are harder to automate, because they require a decision, either by human or an intelligent bot.
Let’s take a support ticket as an example. A team investigates a problem and makes a decision based on what was discovered. It’s not clear from the beginning how to fix the issue. So each ticket creates a case workflow.
Project flows also consist of consecutive tasks that should be carried out following predefined rules and conditions. However, they are a lot more flexible along the way. Since every project is unique, even for the same result, a workflow will vary every time.
Kickstarter campaign launch, an example we gave earlier, represents the project type. You can have a template that works accurately every time, but it is at least slightly changed for every new campaign and product. So project workflows are good for only one item in time.
The difference between workflow, process, and a checklist
If you understand the concept of workflow vaguely, it’s easy to confuse it with a checklist or use interchangeably with a process. But those are three different concepts in the realm of project management.
A process consists of all the activities needed to create a product from start to finish, both tangible and intangible. It involves negotiations and brainstorming, data collection and planning, monitoring and reporting. A workflow, on the other side, consists of a sequence of tasks needed to get one result, complete a procedure.
A process may contain countless workflows, each of them with a single purpose. In other words, processes are strategic concepts, while workflows - tactical.
Sometimes, workflows are represented as checklists, because they are easy to create. The contrast is, checklists have no strict order of tasks, no “if-then” decision trees, and no status tracking. Each task in workflow might have a separate checklist to ensure it’s done correctly.
Anything, where data is not moving, is not a workflow and should not be confused. For example, a list of unconnected activities (eg, cook dinner, wash a car, read a book) is task management. Tasks bulked around one goal are a project. And only if they are connected to be performed in a certain way, they comprise a workflow.
The difference between Automated and Manual Workflows
Manual workflows are managed entirely by humans. When a task is completed, it is a person’s responsibility to push the work to the next stage, to another team member or machine. For example, if you want a vacation, you email your manager. The manager reviews the dates puts them into the schedule and informs the financial department. Then he emails you back the approval, and you write letters about your absence to whom it may concern.
Automated workflows eliminate this responsibility. They are programmed to handle all the notifications, reminders, and deadlines. So when a person completes a job, the system automatically passes the data to the next task or person. For example, a company might have an automated vacation calendar. An employee submits an application, and the manager receives it automatically, reviews and click approve (or decline for some reason). All the departments concerned will also receive the notification.
To track the progress in a manual flow you either keep in mind all the messages or update a checklist manually. Automated workflows make it much easier and more precise. Moreover, it eliminates superfluous tasks, reduces processing time and establishes accountability for each part of the process. However, they require specific software, sometimes multiple apps for each process.
Quick tips on how to create and manage workflows
Documenting and evaluating workflows will make your business more transparent and efficient.
Here are some tips on how to make it right.
- Brainstorm with your team. You need to identify repeated activities to include in the documented workflow. People who perform them regularly know the best way to do it. They also know which parts of the process take too much time or do not bring much value. In the end, you will have a list of steps to work with.
- Define responsibilities. Once you have a list of activities, describe who performs them. In your team, you can have executives (actually perform the task), collaboratives (add their input, but do not execute the task), decision-makers ( approve the job done). When everyone knows their role, the process goes more smoothly.
- Create workflow documentation. Visualising a workflow seems obvious, but it is only half of the job. To enhance performance, you need documentation, which contains details on how to complete each step and what is needed to reach the goal.
- Cut inefficient steps. Estimate the timeframe and value of each stage. If a task appears redundant or takes too much time, consider redesigning or excluding them.
- Automate and outsource. As you revise your workflows, you’ll inevitably find activities that can be automated or outsourced to be cheaper and consume less time. For example, manually emailing clients or reminding the team about deadlines. You can easily find software for these boring things.
With a well-designed workflow, it’s easy to track the progress of any project, have a realistic timeline and clear areas of responsibility for each team member. Using a workflow design software like Casual can help you faster and move friction from creating visual workflows. However, no roadmap will suit everybody. Use templates and examples for inspiration on how to visualise your own process.